On Sunday, June 23, Shopko’s two Chippewa Valley locations closed after almost three months of “everything must go” prices. In mid-January, Shopko Stores Inc. announced its bankruptcy and restructuring: 125 store closures. Then in February came notice that 251 would close; in March the shocking news that all of its 363 stores in 24 states would shut down.
I visit Chippewa Falls Shopko (formerly called “North” and actually in the village of Lake Hallie) a day before the final closing, mostly to say goodbye to my favorite store. Cashiers wear lime green Shopko shirts with their co-workers’ signatures markered across them, like the last day of summer camp.
Chippewa Falls native Lauri See donned her first orange Shopko smock as a temp in August 1982, a month before the store opened. She’d just graduated with a technical college marketing degree and was planning a wedding with her high school sweetheart (who happens to be my brother). She worked her last Shopko shift as a supervisor, one of a handful of employees to see Chippewa Falls Shopko from beginning to end — 37 years.
Store manager Diane Gruhlke called the unexpected closing “heart-breaking and gut-wrenching.” She says, “We really thought we were safe. We were part of a 120-store ‘go forward’ strategy. There was a five-year plan. Summer toys were arriving.”
She started at Shopko North in 1986 when she was a high school sophomore and went on to work in management at two other locations before returning to Chippewa Falls Shopko in 2008. She could barely maintain her composure when she told her team the bad news.
When I heard, I thought of Lauri.
My husband calls her “Miss Shopko.”
Her son says when he enters the store he does a “30-second Lauri Test.” Just wait half a minute to hear her voice. At one of her performance reviews in the last three decades, a manager told Lauri she couldn’t talk to customers so much. She responded: “You can put that in my file, but it won’t stop my personality.”
A few years (and managers) later, corporate came out with a “Customers Count” policy that meant employees should greet anyone within 10 feet. Lauri’s friendliness is legendary and, it turns out, ahead of its time. She always remembered her customers, and they sought her out for assistance. “It set Shopko apart,” she says now.
Pharmacist James Ruben opened his first “Shopco” in Green Bay in 1962. By 1971 he had 10 stores, and in 1981 his 30th store opened in Madison. An early company motto summed up their approach: “To us at Shopko ‘Neat Stuff. Neat Store’ is more than a catchy saying, it’s how we do business.” No matter how far they spread throughout the U.S, Shopko remained a Wisconsin brand, like Kohl’s or Culver’s.
Shopko “North” was built in 1982, a few years after Eau Claire’s Shopko, which then became “South.” Back then, the only way to get merchandise delivered to your door was to pore over a glossy catalog, send your hand-written order by U.S. mail (mostly likely to Sears or J.C. Penney) and wait weeks for your corduroys to arrive. No one dreamt that “home deliveries” might put any store out of business.
In the ‘80s, Shopko joined two other discount department store offerings in Chippewa Falls. These complementary rivals thrived for over a decade, all within three miles. Prange Way closed in 1995, Kmart in 2014.
My go-to store was always Shopko. Lauri worked there, and so did one of my sisters. Eventually two of Lauri’s sons became part-timers.
I once spotted a familiar cashier on a Honolulu beach. “Shopko North,” I called to her. We two strangers from the Chippewa Valley had only Shopko and Lauri in common, but we chatted.
The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development indicated that Chippewa Falls Shopko employed 70 and the Eau Claire store 94, which is the largest number of employees at any Wisconsin-based Shopko. At Wisconsin’s 39 Shopko stores, about 1,700 employees lost jobs. Sadly, this is nothing new. Many 1960s downtown shops succumbed to 1970s malls, which then lost business to 1980s big-box stores. Online commerce affected all of them, particularly in the last decade.
The Washington Post reported in April that the forthcoming “retail apocalypse” is occurring right now, given the recent downfall of Radio Shack, Toys ‘R’ Us, Kmart, Payless ShoeSource, Sears, and now Shopko. An estimated 75,000 more U.S. brick-and-mortar stores are predicted to close by 2026 as buyers further rely on e-commerce.
Amazon, which launched in 1994 as an online bookseller, quickly became a juggernaut of all online sales. Now customers can buy pretty much anything on Amazon — lawn mower or loaf of bread, swimming pool or pair of skis, package of 1,500 live ladybugs or 40-pack of Wrigley’s gum — delivered to your door within 48 hours.
The retail apocalypse was also triggered by consumers shifting their spending habits from “buying” (clothes or furniture) to “experiencing” (traveling or dining out). Even more substantial is what Business Insider called the “death of the middle class as we know it.” This widening gap between wealthy and poor Americans has meant retailers’ target audience, middle class shoppers with some disposable income, has disappeared. After the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, mid-tier retailers like ShopKo had even more difficulty given that consumers spent money on increasing technology.
Recall the good/bad old days when each household had one telephone line which cost roughly $25 per month. Now nearly every person has a cellphone and data plan which is about a 1,500 percent increase in cost for a family of four.
The Chippewa Valley is a microcosm of what is occurring all over the U.S. Companies like Shopko (and Sears or even Macy’s) that relied upon the middle class are going belly-up. The DWD calls this an “ever changing retail landscape.” The agency helps create rapid response teams that retrain displaced workers for new jobs. Some Shopko employees are using this opportunity to go back to school. Others, like Lauri, are taking time to see what happens next.
Manager Diane tells me what she will miss the most is her team, who she considers family. She says, “I am so proud of them for caring until the end, working so hard to provide great service and going out on a strong note.”
A DWD representative says, “Shopko has been an integral economic fixture in many Wisconsin towns and cities ... These closures will be felt by hard-working Wisconsinites.”
The smaller the town, the more folks are affected, both employees and customers. I can’t imagine how much Stanley residents will miss Shopko Hometown, and it’s hard to think of the village of Lake Hallie without our beloved Chippewa Falls ShopKo.
When I visited on its last day, the bare shelves, long lines, and yellow/black “caution tape” all remind me of a store in an end-of-the-world movie.
The retail apocalypse is here.